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How does personal security and safety abroad impact expat wellness?

This short article is part of the What is Wellness? Expat Family Wellness Survey 2018, in which we spoke to 32 families living around the world to explore what ‘wellness’ means to expats.

Personal safety and security is a major concern for families living away from home. Luckily for most of our families, they feel as safe and secure in their new homes. For some this was not the case at all as they now endured a range of new threats to the safety and security of their families.

Safe and secure

The Australian family living in Hong Kong have never felt safer. They felt that women (particularly European women) can walk around at night without feeling threatened and they will happily put their young daughters in a taxi without concern.

The family acknowledge that while there seems to be less crime and violence on the streets of Hong Kong, it may still exist — “we just haven’t seen it.”

Some families moved away from their home country for reasons including safety.

“In Sao Paolo, you would have to go to a mall to feel safe. You might walk down a street and see bullet marks in a wall — a sight you are highly unlikely to see in Toronto.”

“We don’t have a fear of crime here. The streets belong to crime in Brazil but the streets belong to the citizens in Toronto.”Lagnado (Brazilians in Canada).


Conversely, those living in Mexico don’t feel safe. And this isn’t just on the streets, these families’ fears extend beyond the threat of simple violence, to kidnap, extortion and identity theft. Not being from Mexico makes them more of a target.

“You have to be vigilant. We’ve had several extortion calls which is terrifying. That’s one of the reasons we don’t want to give a family photo.” — Anonymous.

Staying safe

Personal security is an issue in Mexico, Nigeria and, to a lesser extent, in India — in stark contrast to some of the other destinations that feature in this study, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada.

In Mexico, this is genuinely felt to be a defining factor of everyday life. Even Alexis — who was born and raised in Nicaragua, before moving to Canada — felt that Mexico posed some extreme threats:

“You constantly have to think about where you go and what you do. I wouldn’t run in the streets here so I have a punchbag in the basement and I use that for my regular exercise instead.”


The biggest challenge in Nigeria, even in Lagos, is that the basic infrastructure is seen as unreliable, particularly the lack of a reliable and constant power supply. At the very least, it’s a major inconvenience, but at worst it’s a threat to normal life and permeates into every aspect of the daily routine.

The Witter family (Brits in Nigeria) explain:

“If you can’t rely on electricity to be there, so many things can go wrong. It isn’t so much in the home - we’re lucky because we have a generator so we can cope in that way - but if you go to the bank and the power is out then you can’t get cash. The ATM won’t work and you can queue for two or more hours just to get some money. It can take a whole day to do one or two basic things.”

Culture shock

Most of the families that we spoke to recognise that they are very well off when compared to the country they have moved to. Most recognize that there is a gulf between those with money and those without. This is an ongoing issue and a real challenge for a group who are, in general, liberal and socially minded. Several said it was hard to come to terms with extreme poverty on the doorstep of considerable wealth. Many added that it impacted their state of mind.

“I feel bad because I can see how things are and you want it to be better for everyone, but, in reality, it’s beyond our control — so what can you do, just feel guilty?”

In Hong Kong, although the levels of poverty are less pronounced than in other countries, the social divide is very clear and some people struggle to come to terms with it:

“It’s a different world where you have local people working for you and it feels difficult, yet I’ve found myself shouting or getting angry when something goes wrong and I don’t like being like that.” — Wendi (Australian in Hong Kong)

10 safest countries
Source: Global Peace Index

  1. Iceland
  2. Denmark
  3. Austria
  4. New Zealand
  5. Portugal
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Switzerland
  8. Canada
  9. Japan
  10. Slovenia

10 most dangerous countries
Source: The UK Foreign Office

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Burkino Faso
  3. Burundi
  4. Central African Republic
  5. Chad
  6. Democratic Republic Of Congo
  7. Iraq
  8. Libya
  9. Mali
  10. Mauritania

Click on the links below to read what our families said about various topics:

Download the 'What is Wellness?’ Expat Family Health & Wellness Survey 2018

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